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The idea of the sublime has something to do with a beauty that is so awe-inspiring that it quite nearly inspires terror. If that’s the definition, then there are certainly occasions during a trip on southern Chile’s Carretera Austral that call for use of the word.

One that comes to mind, from a recent trip that my girlfriend and I took on Chile’s southern highway, happened on the last day of our trip. We were heading towards the Argentine border on a route which had us spending the greater part of the day circumnavigating the banks of the Lago Carrera—an immense, intensely turquoise glacial lake. The sun was already setting as we were finishing the last bit of road leading in to the town of Chile Chico. Sailing through town, we emerged on the other side and were shocked by the sight before us: the highway had spit us out on the other side, in the face of soaring peaks, rising and falling beside a ribbon of road carving a precarious route into the abrupt turns and jagged cliffs. And that’s where the sublime came into play.

The hairpin curves, steep rises, and sudden descents were certainly terrifying—and the terror was intensified by the fact that we were on the side of a mountain with 90-degree cliffs; on a road surface of unpaved gravel. But the beauty of the place was as overwhelming as the drops were fear-provoking. On the opposite shore of the lake, the snow covered Andean peaks turned orange and then purple with the dying light, and at every sharp curve in the road—as we held our breath and sometimes gasped—we were treated to a new, stunning vista.

As the hotel clerk in Chile Chico told us later: “If anyone asks you if you’ve ever piloted an airplane, you can say, ‘No, but I’ve come pretty close.’”

The Carretera Austral is a long, mostly gravel highway which serves as Patagonian Chile’s only land link to the more populated northern part of the country. Its north to south route parallels that of the mythic Highway 40 on the Argentine side of the border, but where the 40 only gives you a glimpse of the Andes in the faraway distance, Chile’s Carretera Austral traces a route right through the heart of the mountain chain—circumnavigating the northern and southern ice caps and the snow blanketed peaks which surround the ice fields—passing high mountain glaciers, waterfalls, fjords, and national parks with dense Pacific forests. Along the way, in the port cities, there’s fresh salmon on offer, probably some of the very best in the world.

We took the Carretera only as an afterthought, a way to break up the monotony of a 1,500 kilometer trip south from Bariloche to the glaciers in Argentina’s southern Santa Cruz province. But our unplanned detour turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the trip. After all, as we were told in the hotel: it’s the closest you can get to flying without leaving the ground.

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